Well, it's Christmas time again, folks! Which means exactly one thing here around the office: endless conversations about what does and does not constitute a Christmas movie. This debate began roughly three years ago, when someone (I think it was myself) singled out Die Hard as the Greatest Christmas Movie Of All Time. This choice, of course, was met with heaping doses of disapproval and disdain (including the immortal argument: "Die Hard doesn't count! Santa Claus isn't even in it!") and has only gotten worse over time.
To which I reply: Why shouldn't it count? What is it about Die Hard that screams NOT A CHRISTMAS MOVIE! anyway? I mean, Home Alone counts as a Christmas movie. Why discount Die Hard when Home Alone tells the same basic story - albeit with less gunplay and foot-slicing – yet still counts itself as a holiday staple in households across America? What makes Die Hard any different from your It's A Wonderful Lifes or your Miracle On 34th Streets, despite the fact that it centers around Mr. Bruce Willis killing the crap out of terrorists for two hours, rather than reindeer and festive good cheer?
Okay, so while I'm willing to admit that DH may not fill you with the same kind of holiday spirit as, say, Bing Crosby romancing the crap out of Rosemary Clooney in White Christmas, I maintain that Die Hard is very much an X-mas movie, if simply for the fact that it takes place during the holiday itself. Sort of an anti-Christmas Christmas movie, if you will, but one nonetheless. And if you count Die Hard as part of that "unofficial" list, then surely there must be others, don't you think? Lethal Weapon takes place during Christmas. Batman Returns takes place during Christmas. Wouldn't they count as "anti" Christmas movies too?
And so today I present to you a list of
my the 20 Greatest
Anti-Christmas Christmas Movies Ever Made, to help this holiday go down just
right. To make the list, these titles must a) occur on or around Christmas, b)
include dialogue, costume or set design that clearly signifies the season, and
c) must not include any reference to Christmas at all in its title, lest that
be a dead giveaway. That's it. This list is not meant to be traditional in any
way (in fact, you were probably never aware that most of these took place
during Christmas at all), nor is it meant to be completely comprehensive, so if
you're looking to find National Lampoon's
Christmas Vacation or The Santa Clause
here, well, expect a lump of coal in your stocking instead.
The write-up for each film will be limited to 2-3 sentences, for brevity's (and my sanity's) sake. Oh, and just to ratchet up the tension a bit, Die Hard is no longer #1 (the horror!), now that I've had a little time to think about it, although it does come dangerously close. How close? You'll have to stick around to find out. Merry Christmas!
#20: Iron Man Three (Shane Black, 2013)
My least favorite Iron Man, for what it's worth, though not for a lack of trying. Credit co-writer/ director Shane Black, given free rein to Marvel's giant toy box without straying too far outside his comfort zone (superfluous Christmas setting included). The problem is, every scene seems to build to some elaborate punchline, from the ultimate reveal of the Mandarin's identity to the love-hate relationship between Tony and his new Mark 42 suit, so all the integrity of the characters is lost.
#19: Gremlins (Chris Columbus, 1984)
Nothing says "holiday cheer" like a horde of ugly, despicable trolls who want nothing more than to eat you after midnight, preferably poolside. Its countless scenes of menace and mayhem, plus an all-around negative streak ("And that's how I found out there was no Santa Claus...") are practically guaranteed to get you overdosing on the eggnog. Yet it's all meant to be in good fun!
#18: Edward Scissorhands (Tim Burton, 1990)
Before you tell me, "So it's got snow in it, that doesn't make it a holiday movie," consider the opening and closing scenes, with an elderly woman and her granddaughter on a wintry Christmas night. And its explanation for that snow - an annual tradition, in honor of the love its titular character could never have - is as yuletide bittersweet as you can get. A truly original concoction from director Burton, even if it does resort to substandard action movie clichés at the end.
#17: Lady And The Tramp (Clyde Geronimi,
Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske, 1955)
Walt Disney's effervescent canine classic, bookended by a couple of scenes set on Christmas morning. In between, we get "La La Lu," "He's A Tramp," "The Siamese Cat Song" (not necessarily in that order), and our two title characters splitting a plate of spaghetti to the strains of "Bella Notte." The gift is everyone's.
#16: Love, Actually (Richard Curtis, 2003)
The ensemble Romantic Comedy par excellence, set in London during the five weeks leading up to Christmas. Its stellar cast (Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley, Liam Neeson and Emma Thompson among them), heartfelt humor, and unwavering belief that love can indeed conquer all goes a long way toward offsetting Curtis's first-time directorial flourishes. And I dare you to keep Billy Mack's X-Mas rendition of "Love Is All Around" out of your head.
#15: Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987)
A Romantic Comedy of a different sort, between two platonic polar opposites on the trail of vicious drug smugglers. Mel Gibson, Danny Glover and screenwriter Shane Black's signature one-liners deliver the goods, set against a harsh Los Angeles backdrop that's anything but merry and bright. The opening scene sets the tone, in which a half-naked prostitute climbs onto the balcony of her high-rise apartment and leaps to her death, while Bobby Helms's "Jingle Bell Rock" plays in the background.
#14: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black, 2005)
"My name's Harry Lockhart, I'll be your narrator." So begins Shane Black's delightfully meta, deliciously entertaining directorial debut, with all the trimmings we expect from his prodigious oeuvre - rapid-fire banter, noir-ish murder mystery plot, and, of course, cool-as-a-cucumber Christmas setting, already exploited to full effect in Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and later, Iron Man 3. Plus, you can't go wrong with Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr. at their playful, criminal best.
#13: Three Days Of The Condor (Sydney
Yes, it takes place during Christmas; but that's the backdrop, not the filler. Its government-is-out-to-get-you suspense plot, so timely after the "Family Jewels" and Watergate scandals of the 70s, stands toe-to-toe with the political thrillers of today. Yet it's the romance between Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway (recounted so memorably during Steven Soderbergh's Out Of Sight) you'll probably like best about it anyway.
The Coen Brothers' most underrated gem, in which a simpleton (Tim Robbins) groomed to become a highfalutin' company patsy becomes a media sensation instead. The hula hoop, of course, was invented in July 1958, not Christmas 1958 as depicted here, but then everything here is delightfully artificial: the sights, the sets, even Jennifer Jason Leigh's faux Katherine Hepburn/ Rosalind Russell-ish accent (which annoyed many critics). The countless references to past Hollywood classics are a nice bonus, too.
#11: Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992)
The best of the Burton Batmans, packed with his signature wit and off-kilter quirkiness. I still maintain that the movie is more about its Caped Crusader than the critics care to let on, with each villain a fractured funhouse mirror of Bruce Wayne's tortured psyche (as always, I direct you here to Mr. Drew McWeeny's insights on the subject, which delve much deeper than mine). Its macabre tone and psychosexual overtones are completely inappropriate for the kiddies, however.
#10: The Bourne Identity (Doug Liman, 2002)
Didn't realize this one was set at Christmas? Neither did I - until I re-watched it recently and noticed the snow, the frost coming from the characters' mouths, and if that weren't enough to convince you, the X-Mas decorations set up in the house where Matt Damon holes up before Clive Owen comes to kill him. The first big-screen Bourne is the gift that keeps on giving - a taut, efficient little thriller that only gains in stature the bigger and bloatier our current action movie tentpoles have become.
#9: The French Connection (William
From its opening sequence, in which hard-nosed NYC detective "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman) busts a petty drug smuggler while wearing a Santa costume, you can tell this classic police procedural will have no qualms about flipping convention on its head. The rest of the movie follows suit - shot hand-held (long before the "shaky cam" became the norm), on actual location, with an ending that's as abrupt as it is morally ambiguous. The climactic train/car chase is justly subversive, too.
#8: L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997)
Based on the infamous "Bloody Christmas" beatings of 1951, James Ellroy's pulp detective novel makes a glorious leap to the big screen courtesy director Curtis Hanson (The Hand That Rocks The Cradle) and writer Brian Helgeland (A Knight's Tale). It's a deliberate throwback to classics such as Chinatown and The Big Sleep, with a plot so dense, there's practically a twist every 15 seconds. And the cast (including Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger and Russell Crowe, to name a few) is absolutely killer.
#7: The Thin Man (W. S. Van Dyke, 1934)
Nick and Nora Charles, the cinema's most beloved alcoholic husband-and-wife detective team, make their film debut in the quintessential comedy-mystery thriller. They fight, they flirt, they slosh back their share of martinis - and, boy, do they know how to throw a cocktail party at Christmas! Above all else, a masterpiece of witty one-liners and romantic chemistry; Roger Ebert once called it "an all-dialogue version of an Astaire and Rogers musical," and watching it today, it's easy to see why.
#6: The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)
Billy Wilder's brilliant, bracingly cynical take on the lives of lowly office workers hasn't lost any of its bite since the 60s. In fact, it's probably more relevant today than it was back then - marital infidelity, corporate misconduct, even an attempted suicide (on Christmas Eve, no less!) all wrapped up in one sparkling holiday package. Also one of the few comedies to use the widescreen frame to its advantage, its stark, forced-perspective photography meant to mimic the melancholy of the characters.
#5: Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988)
The most influential action picture of the past three decades, and yes, all the essential X-mas elements are here, including (but not limited to) Christmas wrapping, Christmas parties, a Santa hat, and "NOW I HAVE A MACHINE GUN. HO-HO-HO." Also, if busting your butt to complete a task at hand (in this case, butchering an entire team of terrorists who ransom the building where your wife works) so you can spend more time with your family doesn't scream "Happy Holidays," I don't know what does.
#4: The Shop Around The Corner (Ernst
My vote for the greatest Romantic Comedy of all time, overflowing with memorable supporting characters, a pungent sense of place, and a gooey, often hilariously push-pull relationship at its center. That the bulk of its plot centers exclusively around Christmas hardly seems to matter much; neither does the fact that virtually no one in the entire cast makes even a passable attempt a Hungarian accent. Remade as In The Good Old Summertime and You've Got Mail, though no one could match the ol' Lubitsch touch.
#3: Fanny And Alexander (Ingmar Bergman,
Ingmar Bergman certainly made tougher films (Persona, Cries And Whispers), and also more prestigious, Culturally Significant films (The Seventh Seal). Yet he never made anything as joyful or deeply personal as this, a culmination of sorts of everything that obsessed him (family, fantasy, theology, the theater) throughout his lustrous career. The film's sumptuous first half, set in the Ekdahls' familial home during Christmas, gives way to the stark, sterile corridors of the latter half - a feeling, no doubt, all of us have felt while de-decorating our homes after the holidays.
#2: Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985)
One of the most uniquely personal visions ever committed to celluloid, Terry Gilliam's Orwell-sian masterpiece was greeted with downright hostility from Universal Pictures, who couldn't make heads or tails of it. But "understanding" the film isn't necessary to your enjoyment of it - like the best Sci-Fi satires, it's the ideas and the visuals that matter most, and, boy, does this one deliver. The icy Christmas setting and slapstick-y comedy bits add some extra sting to the dystopian goings-on.
#1: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1942)
The ultimate Anti-Christmas Christmas Movie, and the Greatest American Film to boot, in which the symbol of one man's happy childhood - "Rosebud," taken away from him one fateful Christmas - helped chart the course for the rest of his life. Including it here may be a stretch, but I can't think of a better example of the many ways the holiday (good or bad) shapes who we are, what we become, and the legacy we leave behind for our loved ones. It's the film that firmly broke all the rules; so forgive me if I break one here myself.
What say you, Faithful Readers? Is it a "Ho Ho Ho" or hearty "Bah Humbug" to this Anti-Christmas Christmas list? Did I leave anything off, or include any that should have been left off completely? Take a break from your Christmas caroling and sound off in the comments below! And above all have a Happy Holiday!